By Eugene Smith
Four of Durham City’s seven parliamentary candidates traded blows at a special Question Time event at Chad’s College on Monday, three days before voters go to the polls on Thursday 8th June.
In a 75-minute session, candidates representing the Labour, Conservative, Liberal Democrat and Green parties fielded questions from students and local residents on various matters, from Brexit to local schooling.
Dr Roberta Blackman-Woods, the Labour candidate who has represented Durham in Parliament since 2005, said the biggest issue facing the city was a lack of jobs. The former academic warned that the Conservatives threatened to “take us back to the 1950s” with “unfair, damaging policies,” before claiming the Labour Party had produced an “absolutely amazing manifesto” for voters.
Dr Blackman-Woods further argued this month’s election was “never called because of Brexit” but rather because of the Conservative Party’s “opportunism,” and that the campaign has shown “just how much Theresa May hates talking to people”. Pressed on the viability of Jeremy Corbyn’s shadow cabinet, she urged voters to “get away from this castigation of Diane [Abbott, the shadow home secretary],” claiming there was a “bias in the whole media” that failed to proportionately criticise such figures as Boris Johnson, the Conservative foreign secretary.
Meanwhile, Dr Richard Lawrie, the Conservative Party candidate for the constituency, also named unemployment as Durham’s most pressing issue. For his part, the current Vice Master of University College criticised Labour for a “fictional wish-list” of policies, arguing a Conservative government would be based on “personal freedom, sensible economics” and an aim to “help people to help themselves”.
Dr Lawrie claimed the election was called because the opposition parties were “lining up to cause trouble” with respect to the imminent Brexit negotiations, and subsequently outlined his opposition to any second referendum on a departure from the European Union. The academic historian further said the government should be “creative” with education funding and “flexible” with the running of the National Health Service.
The Liberal Democrat candidate, Amanda Hopgood, said Durham’s main problem was a “lack of planning,” with flaws in its funding formula for schools and construction projects. Ms Hopgood, who leads the Lib Dem opposition on Durham County Council, emphasised her party’s commitment to keeping the UK within the European single market and criticised the Labour manifesto’s spending plans as too heavily based on pre-Brexit “status quo” conditions.
The candidate also defended her party’s manifesto commitment to legalise marijuana, with reference to the support given to the policy by Durham Constabulary.
Jonathan Elmer, the Green Party candidate, similarly identified a lack of planning as Durham’s main problem. The freelance ecologist opened the debate by declaring US President Donald Trump’s decision to pull out of the Paris Climate Agreement was an “act of extremism,” before going on to argue many Conservative policies, such as the so-called “dementia tax,” were “ridiculous”.
Mr Elmer further argued that measurements of the UK’s national economic health should move away from a focus on GDP, and defended his party’s proposals to introduce a Universal Income.
The City of Durham candidates not present at the debate were UKIP’s Malcolm Bint, Jon Collings of the Young People’s Party, and Jim Clark, who is standing as an independent.
The polling booths open on Thursday 8th June, closing at 10 p.m.
Photograph: Divya Shastri